Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Nick Blackwell "gutted" after loss in Ukraine

TROWBRIDGE middleweight Nick Blackwell admitted he was “gutted” to lose a controversial decision in Kharkiv, Ukraine to Max Bursak on September 21.

Travelling abroad last weekend with just two weeks’ notice, the 22-year-old dropped his rival in round four, and appeared to have the fight won until he was denied on all three judges’ cards.

Blackwell, 13-3 (6), was devastated at the final verdict. “I really thought I won the fight,” he sighed.

“Once I watched the fight back, without sounding biased I thought I caught him with the harder, cleaner and faster shots. He didn’t hurt me once, I’m just so frustrated. I thought I’d stop him in the fourth but looking back I should have used my jab a little more.”

Down but not out, the former British title challenger will try to take the positives. “I’ve learned so much from the experience,” said Blackwell. “If you look at the amount of fights I’ve had, I’ve improved a lot during the last year. Bursak is already 29 and at the peak of his career, so when you consider how well I did to stand up to him, I think I proved a lot of people wrong.

“We never expected to get a decision away from home but I would rather take a big fight abroad than stay in England, fight a journeyman, and not learn anything. These are the kind of fights that make me excited to be in boxing. The world is my oyster and you never know what may be around the corner.”

Indeed, flanked by his influential promoter PJ Rowson, Blackwell could be in line for a string of domestic thrillers after another brave performance.

With Kerry Hope from Wales and Sheffield’s Adam Etches on the horizon in the near future, there is one other fight which Blackwell has his eyes on.

“A lot of people would like to see me knock out Chris Eubank Jnr,” he laughs. “Although Chris always comes across as a nice, quiet lad whenever I’ve met him, he’s very arrogant and disrespects a lot of fighters. Now that the public know me, I think it’s a fight they want to see. The middleweight division is so exciting right now and there are a lot of fights out there to be made.”

Next on Blackwell’s agenda, though, is a trip to New York in November to spar the fearsome WBA king, Gennady Golovkin. “It might be painful!” the young prospect chuckles. “But it’s going to be a hell of an experience and a true honour to share the ring with, in my opinion, the best middleweight in the world.”

“I think to myself, if I can stand in there with Golovkin, I don't need to worry about any other fighter for the rest of my career. I’m aiming to earn some respect as well - although it’s only sparring Golovkin will try to take my head off and I’ll give as good as I get.”

By Alistair Hendrie, from Boxing News September 2013 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Rocky Fielding talks Smith, Harrison and lifting the Commonwealth title as an 11-year-old

ROCKY FIELDING has a dilemma on his hands. It is a few weeks before his September 21 assignment at the Liverpool Olympia, but the rising super-middleweight may struggle to meet the demands of his growing fanbase.

“I’ve only been given 350 tickets,” he sighs.

Indeed, Fielding has already developed a profile as an archetypal crowd-pleaser, and when he loads up on left-right combinations, plants his feet and asserts his authority, his Olympia faithful create a din more reminiscent of a stadium fight rather than a small hall tussle. What will the English champion do to appease his supporters?

“I’ve been asking around for a few more tickets,” Fielding tells Boxing News. “But my fans will always find a way - they even come through the fire exits sometimes! I’ll occasionally see them at ringside or the free bar and I’ll say: “You lot only got the £40 tickets, how did you get in here?” They’ll reply: “Ah, don’t worry about it, we find a way.”

Granted, Fielding knows all about getting into events on the snip. In the late 1990s, he befriended the revered trainer John Smith, and attended fights for free in exchange for holding spit-bucket duties in the corner. “Smithy still takes me to events today!” the Scouser laughs.

But one moment stands out from Fielding’s time shadowing the pros. As a wide-eyed 11-year-old, he was photographed with Alex Moon’s Commonwealth super-featherweight title after rushing into the ring during a post-fight scramble. Fielding now has his own chance for Commonwealth gold when he tackles the crafty Ghanaian Mohammed Akrong.

“I visited my mum’s recently to pick up the photo of Moon’s belt,” says the 26-year-old. “I placed it on the mantelpiece and every time I look at it, it reminds me of my years following Smith around the pros. I always thought to myself, I’d love to fight for one of those belts one day. It’s amazing to think that now I’ve finally got that chance.”

Along with his waves of local support, another man hoping for a Commonwealth scalp is Fielding’s trainer Oliver Harrison. The 52-year-old already counts Jamie Moore, Amir Khan, Tony Dodson and Martin Murray as past and present alumni, and began coaching Fielding in 2010, shortly after he decided to turn pro. Although the pair initially struggled with communication – “I listened to the crowd more than instructions” – they have nevertheless blossomed into a unique partnership.

With Harrison’s methodical approach and Fielding’s gun-slinging enthusiasm, the Liverpool prospect has already won the Prizefighter tournament, as well as a host of English title clashes against Carl Dilks and Wayne Reed. In that case it is no surprise Fielding has generated such a following. Why, though, did he choose the arduous, daily commute to Salford in order to work with Harrison?

“I just wanted to train away from Liverpool. When you stay in Liverpool, because everyone knows everyone, if you have a bad spar or if you get cut, it spreads all over town in no time. There were a lot of good coaches around, but they all had big stables, so I wanted to find a coach who would look after me properly.”

As an amateur Fielding enjoyed stints at the Salisbury ABC, the Stockbridge ABC and the Rotunda base in Kirkdale, and continues: “When I turned pro I travelled around to a few gyms to see how I’d feel, but once I stepped into Oliver’s ABC I just remember seeing how busy it was. I looked around the gym and saw photos of all these great fighters with their titles – Khan, Moore, Murray...

“I remember during my first spar I did about a round and 30 seconds until Oliver called me over to stop. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know how I’d be received. I just remember glancing over at Derry [Mathews], who simply shrugged his shoulders at me. Thankfully, once Oliver sat me down he told me he was really impressed. He’s a coach I trust and I’m really happy with him.”

Fielding, who also fought for England in the unpaid ranks, paints Harrison as a relentless workaholic. Come sunrise, the trainer is already in the gym, setting up equipment, tidying up, and jotting down training plans for his stable. After all, Harrison has always been known as a master tactician and, in April, he and Murray almost upset WBC middleweight king Sergio Martinez.

“The tactics were spot on,” Fielding attests. “Oliver’s idea was to rough Sergio up, get him reeling and force him to retire on the stool. I thought Murray just nicked it. I’ve always monitored Oliver’s fighters, and I hope what he’s done for Murray can rub off on me. He really studies boxing and to be honest the gym’s never shut - I don’t think he even goes on holiday. Sometimes he does send his missus and kids away though!”

The starlet vows to stay with his current cornerman for the rest of his career, proclaiming: “After my family, Oliver is the person I trust the most and someone who wants the best for me. We’re so close, we’re together every day in the gym, and aside from that we’re always talking on the phone and texting. He hasn’t rushed me into anything and always does what’s right.”

Promoter Eddie Hearn has also played his part. “He always said we could fight for the Commonwealth title,” reveals Fielding. Hearn pulled off another trick when he placed his fighter at ringside in June, as Liverpool’s Paul Smith tore into Dodson in six bloody rounds to take the British title. 

Unsurprisingly, talk is rife of a derby showdown between Smith and Fielding. “I’d like the fight but I say let Paul defend his belt a few times or maybe go for the European title. He’s had 30-odd fights and been around the block a bit, so he deserves it.”

But Fielding turns up the heat when asked about the Sky Sports pundits, Johnny Nelson and Glenn McCrory, who argued that the Smith fight is a bridge too far at this moment in time. “On Sky Sports they only see me in fights where the other guy isn’t fighting back. If they’d seen me at all before Prizefighter, they’d say: “Yeah, you’re sound, you’re ready.” Even on the night I won the tournament, all three of my opponents came to knock me out and they all came to win - that’s when I perform to my best. Maybe after this fight, then we’ll see whether they think I’m ready for Smith or not.”

First of all, Fielding will need to deal with Akrong, a defensively gifted fighter with a highly slung guard and a mean right cross. The African, 19-5 (15), made his debut in 2003 - seven years before his next opponent - but has campaigned for the most part against journeymen with losing records. Harrison will need to be on top form regardless.

“He’ll [Harrison] tell me what to do and we’ll establish how to win the fight,” Fielding stresses. “I’m sure Oliver will give me the correct tactics because he studies the game so closely. We plan on working to the body, getting his hands down and then taking him out. I think Akrong’s there for the taking. I want to make my dreams a reality and win this Commonwealth title. The next year or so is going to be exciting.”

Still, it is always exciting when Fielding is around. The softly spoken Liverpool man is already crafting a reputation for his knack of loading up on combinations, as well as his ability to finish off a wounded opponent. If Akrong suffers a similar fate, you can guarantee Hearn, Harrison and the Liverpool public will tear the roof off of the old Olympia, whether the fans snuck in through the fire exits or not. 

By Alistair Hendrie

From Boxing News (September 2013)

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Five Serie A opening week talking points

Luca Toni proves he’s still got it

Following his release from Fiorentina at the end of last season, many thought the veteran goal-getter Luca Toni was over the hill when he joined newly promoted Verona. How would he respond to the detractors? Well, he scored twice in a miraculous 2-1 win over title-chasing AC Milan – quite a way to silence the critics.

Now 36, Toni looked like a new man in the Gialloblu shirt and scored two thumping headers either side of half-time to send the home faithful into raptures. Manager Andrea Mandorlini, who steered Verona to their first Serie A campaign in eleven years, said: “Toni was very happy with his brace and I told him he deserves to be back in the Nazionale. Luca is fantastic, and he deserves these goals as a professional and as a man.”

New managers hit the ground running but questions remain at Inter

Elsewhere in northern Italy, Water Mazzarri began his tenure as Inter Milan manager with a hard fought 2-0 victory over Genoa. But until Yuto Nagatomo and Rodrigo Palacio cured the 51-year-old’s anxieties in the last quarter of an hour, the Nerazzurri were bereft of any attacking guile in a 3-5-1-1 formation that left them exposed down the flanks. There are certainly still problems to address. Ricky Alvarez is woefully inconsistent, and none of Inter’s three managers in the last two years have brought the best out of Fredy Guarin.

Also entering new jobs were Rafael Benitez at Napoli and Rudi Garcia, who took over the helm at Roma. While management in Serie A can frequently be a poisoned chalice, both men emerged unscathed in their first assignments, Napoli prevailing 3-0 against Bologna and Roma netting twice without reply at Livorno.

Selection headache for Antonio Conte

Meanwhile, if you pay any attention to the headlines, you’d think Carlos Tevez had got off to a flier at Juventus. Think again. He may have scored the only goal of the match as Antonio Conte’s champions inched past Sampdoria, but it’s still unclear how the Argentine will slot in with the Old Lady’s vast reserves of attacking riches.

After all, ex-Juve flop Diego could have scored a tap-in such as Tevez’s winner, and the former Manchester City star was left isolated by his strike partner Mirko Vucinic. Over and over again Vucinic, the Montenegrin, neglected to pass to his team-mate and struggled to anticipate his runs. Elsewhere the free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, Fernando Llorente, was left on the bench until a brief and unproductive cameo with five minutes remaining. Surely Conte can’t please all three of them.

Does it pay to shoot from range?

While Juventus are spoiled for choice in forward-line options, Bologna, Livorno and Sampdoria could do with a few reinforcements. All three lost on the opening weekend without scoring a goal, but dig a little deeper, and the most common theme among the early strugglers is their overwhelming reliance on long range efforts. Indeed, out of Bologna’s eight attempts on goal, seven were from outside the 18-yard-box. Livorno’s shooting was similarly haphazard as four out of their five efforts were thumped from beyond the “D.”

Still, neither side were as profligate as Sampdoria. While the sleeping giants let fly only four times at home to Juventus, not once did they shoot from inside the area. Madness. You have to wonder, is this something now engrained in Italian football? Is build-up play becoming a lost art on Serie A training grounds? Granted, with the evidence on show, these three teams in the bottom half may well struggle for goals.  

Lazio begin PR rebuild after racism scandal

Lazio on the other hand were wildly enterprising in their 2-1 scalp over Udinese at the Stadio Olimpico. But as the new season comes to a fore, the Eagles’ prominence is once again overshadowed by problems in the stands. As a result of fans’ racist chanting against Juventus in last week’s Supercoppa Italiana (a 4-0 defeat), Vladimir Petkovic’s side were forced to play with their Curva Nord shut, and responded by wearing jerseys bearing the phrase: “We love football, we fight racism.”

The swift counter was at least a step forward. Maybe now, Italian clubs will attempt to clean up their image, especially at a time when bad news spreads fast thanks to social networking. Regardless, Lazio didn’t do themselves any favours by appealing the disciplinary action and apparently haven’t learned from the four racism charges they incurred last season.

By Alistair Hendrie

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Why Rousey-Cyborg has to happen soon

There was an air of inevitability about Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s Invicta featherweight title win over Marloes Coenen. Once again, Cyborg drained her opponent of will and reserves with a merciless display of stand-up boxing and ground-and-pound. The Brazilian never looked in danger and, I feel, given her superiority over every viable challenger in Invicta’s 145lb division, she needs to finally tackle Ronda Rousey for the good of the sport.

After all, it’s a genuine super-fight, and look what happened when Anderson Silva lost his UFC middleweight title to Chris Weidman: a trio of grandstand clashes between Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Silva were resigned to a mere pipe-dream. Therefore promotions need to strike while the iron is hot and capitalise on fights such as Jones-Silva and Rousey-Justino.

In all honesty, it’s difficult to determine any other options for the latter pair. Frankly, I expect Rousey to defend her UFC bantamweight title inside a round or possibly two when she rematches Miesha Tate in December at UFC 168. Justino appears similarly untouchable, and aside from her no-contest against Hiroko Yamanaka in 2011 (Cris failed a drugs test after an initial TKO win), she owns a hot streak of seven consecutive stoppage victories.

But there comes a point where I grow bored of Justino’s cast-iron grip on her counterparts. She needs a genuine test and a fight that would seal her legacy. Sure, the match-up with Rousey would involve myriad negotiations – and a potential catchweight agreement – but money, contracts and inter-promotional agendas should not scupper what would be the biggest fight in the history of women’s MMA.

When these two girls are on the big stage, people take notice. In February, Rousey’s title fight with Liz Carmouche, the first women’s bout in UFC history, generated $1.4m in gate revenue. In 2009, Justino’s Strikeforce barnburner against Gina Carano amassed $736k on the night – and that was while the California outfit was playing second-fiddle behind the UFC.

Need I go on? There’s also the contrast in character – with Rousey playing the cocksure US golden girl, and Justino revelling in her role as the brooding South American wrecking machine. Whichever way you look at it - from a fan’s point of view or a financial sense - this is a fight that simply has to happen – and soon.

Dana White and the UFC, in my opinion, need to take a step back and re-think their matchmaking model here. Perhaps they should co-exist with Invicta for this one rare exception. But more importantly, let’s hope the company learns from the Silva-Weidman fiasco and grasps this enticing super-fight when it’s still relevant.

By Alistair Hendrie

Scott crumbles on the big stage against Chisora

Philadelphia heavyweight Malik Scott lost both his mind and his undefeated record this weekend at Wembley Arena against Dereck Chisora. Down on one knee in the sixth round after a cuffing right hand, Scott appeared unhurt but for whatever reason rose soon after the count of nine and was counted out in controversial circumstances. Whether or not Scott was unjustly stopped, he looked merely embarrassed as opposed to disappointed, and hardly mirrored the fury which his corner fired at referee Phil Edwards.

Was Scott simply overwhelmed by the occasion? This was the first time in Scott’s 37-fight career that he had fought outside of America and although he was supposed to be an acid test for Chisora, he engaged in too much holding and ignored the advice of his trainer, Jesse Reid, who told him to stop the spoiling antics. 
Debate ensued on social media over the stoppage, but Scott should have known better and stood up earlier.

However, Chisora, who won the lightly regarded WBO International title, boxed calmly behind a high guard and threw the full force of his weight behind every punch. Indeed, you get the sense this is a turning point in his career. He turned in a studious performance and obeyed the commands of his father-figure trainer Don Charles, barking “yes sir” at his instructions.

The Finchley man set a high pace early on, walking forward with the visiting fighter circling away from potent roundhouse swings. Chisora nevertheless struggled to score with any great accuracy and the defensive Scott used mauling tactics to frustrate his rival. Be it tangling arms, wrestling or leading with the forearm, no amount of fouling seemed beyond the American and Edwards warned him repeatedly.

Scott’s team begged him to stop clinching and in the fourth session, Chisora finally began to break his stubborn opponent’s guard. With Scott on the ropes, looking to deflect and parry punishment, Chisora found a second wind and fired vicious left-rights to the body, finishing with a clean uppercut that forced his opposite number to side-step away in a hurry.

Still, in round number five, Malik continued to play possum on the ropes but began to roll with the punches and avoid attacks. His balletic footwork was paramount, as he wheeled away once again, and he also scored with two sudden uppercuts.  Come the sixth round Scott was beginning to relax. Toying with Chisora again, he dropped his hands and relied on speed and combinations.

But Chisora grew frustrated and bull-rushed the tattooed Scott against the ropes, decking him with an untidy overhand right and a cheap shot to the body. Scott dropped to one knee in the unsightly melee. It was difficult to gauge the extent of his pain in such a blur of unravelling drama. He smiled at his corner during the count, but only he knows why. He stood up at “nine,” although Edwards was already signalling the end of the contest. Scott looked bashful more than anything else.

Granted, the polarising climax takes some of the gloss away from Chisora’s win. As MC Mark Burdis announced the result, the profanities Scott’s corner directed at Edwards caught the attention more than the actual result.

After the fight, promoter Frank Warren announced that Chisora will fight again on September 21 at east London’s Copper Box Arena. A revenge-tinged rematch with Robert Helenius could be an attractive option, while Tony Thompson could a potential foe if Warren is willing to cough up the cash and pull a few strings. This was by far the most accomplished performance of Chisora’s career and he and Charles seem to have found a groove together. Where Scott goes after such a humiliating meltdown is another story. 

By Alistair Hendrie

Monday, 17 June 2013

Prandelli adds harmony to exciting Italy side

In the build-up to the Confederations Cup in Brazil, doubts remained over the quality and trajectory of the ball FIFA have provided for the tournament. Andrea Pirlo, the Italy playmaker, made a mockery of those suggestions by scoring a sumptuous free kick from 20 yards as the Azzurri inched past Mexico 2-1 in Group A.

And yet, there was so much else to admire about Cesare Prandelli's swashbuckling side. Pirlo sprayed passes around as if mechanically programmed, Mario Balotelli dropped deep to great effect, and Emanuele Giaccherini bristled with energy across the flanks.

Prandelli should be credited for moulding his team into such a fluid outfit. The side's harmomy is perhaps the main key here. In Italy's starting 11, in a 4-3-3 formation, Prandelli featured six Juventus players, four Milan players and one Roma player. The Roma player, Daniele De Rossi, has been playing for the national side for almost a decade now, so integrating him into the squad is no problem.

Consider Brazil's performance against Japan on Saturday. They looked disjointed, absent-minded in midfield, and largely played as individuals, with Fred and Hulk upfront both an anonymous presence. Although the won 3-0, they rarely showed the kind of cohesion and counter-attacking spark that Italy showed against Mexico.

Balotelli and Giaccherini, the exciting Juventus winger, almost benefited from Ricardo Montolivo's strong work down the flank. In a frenetic opening passage, Balotelli was involved again, and showed strong initiative to go close with an audacious chip when the Mexico goalkeeper, Jose Corona, lost his bearings.

Then came Pirlo's moment. The bearded Juventus man is perhaps one of the most relaxed footballers in the game, the same vacant stare across his face whatever the situation. In apparent slow-motion, he looped a graceful free kick over Corona into the left-hand corner, using perfect backlift and spin.

Despite Javier Hernandez's equaliser, a penalty after half an hour, Italy continued to pierce their rival's resistance with  crossfield balls and mesmerising runs. Giaccherini and Motolivo went close in the closing moments, although Italy sealed the three points on 78 minutes, Giaccherini looping a hopeful pass into the penalty area, the bullish Balotelli squirming past three crude challenges to hammer low underneath Corona.

The goal summed up Italy's performance. Somehow, someway, they manage to wriggle through and find opponents with impossible passes. Italy lack the unrelenting care for the ball that Spain pride themselves on, but in quick, short bursts moving forward, Prandelli's side look devastatingly accurate with the ball at their feet. 

Pirlo himself completed 69 passes and one key pass, accumulating a 93% pass success rate. De Rossi, who plays a more reserved role for his national team, was no less influential, completing 88 passes, the most of any player on the pitch. And Balotelli played with great enthusiasm all night and was most effective when dropping off, leaving Giaccherini with space to bomb down the wings with menace.

Quite simply, it was a magnificent team performance. Prandelli's team play as a unit, with a fixed Juventus spine of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Pirlo. The team counter as one, boasting terrific options, and are beginning to hone an effect not dissimilar to Spain with their Barcelona-dominated starting elevens.

While Italy may be quite a way from defeating Vicente del Bosque's side who thrashed them in the Euro 2012 final, it appears that Brazil, on Saturday, may have their hands full with the team in royal blue.

By Alistair Hendrie

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Conditioning remains a problem as Nelson ends UFC contract with defeat

Roy Nelson’s UFC future hangs in the balance after a disappointing decision loss to the slick Stipe Miocic at UFC 161. Nelson’s current contract with the UFC has expired, and given his history of disagreements with president Dana White, the Las Vegan heavyweight could soon be leaving the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion.  

In the remaining fight on his deal, Nelson looked devoid of his fan-pleasing power and struggled to maintain any kind of competitive tempo. Miocic, however, arrived with a polished gameplan and scored pot-shots on the outside while circling away from danger. The Croatian, a trim and athletic heavyweight, picked Nelson apart in the stand-up department, finding the target with 127 significant strikes.

Looking forward, the main worry for Nelson could be a lack of application and work ethic. Ever since Nelson’s early days on The Ultimate Fighter: Season 10, White has bemoaned the 36-year old for his sizeable waistline and bearded caveman persona. His conditioning was a problem against Miocic too.

Nelson frequently took in big gasps of air when working against the fence, while during stand-up exchanges he threw lumbering arm punches with little direction. In the final moments, as referee Jerin Valel separated a clinch, Nelson took a few tentative steps back and bent forwards in exhaustion. He was entirely spent.

Is motivation the main problem here? Nelson is a Brazilian Jui-Jitzu black belt under Renzo Gracie, so applying a craft and soaking up instructions shouldn’t be too much of a problem. But in terms of learning new techniques and approaching new challenges, Nelson may have stagnated at some stage.

Consider the evidence: prior to UFC 161, his last three fights lasted less than six minutes combined – and all ended in thunderous knockout victories. It’s difficult to see where Nelson could continue to pick up knowledge, or convince White, in such one-sided landslides.

His last win in that sequence, against Chieck Kongo in April, at UFC 159, allowed Nelson a paltry six-week break between fights, possibly contributing to the burnout factor. Even if fights only last a few minutes, the preparation for a big event – media duties, training and travelling – can still leave the engine running dry in both mental and physical terms.

Either way, White and Nelson need to put their differences aside and come to a conclusion that is beneficial for both sides. In terms of revenue and entertainment, there are few more profitable fighters in the sport than Nelson, and the fans love him.

Future scraps with Travis Browne, Mark Hunt or Shawn Jordan would surely generate fireworks and big pay-per-views numbers, so in that respect, the UFC still has a place for Nelson. If a deal can’t come to fruition then a move to Bellator, where lanky knockout specialist Alexander Volkov rules the heavyweight division, would be a marketable switch. Whatever happens, it would be a great shame if the Miocic debacle was the last memory UFC fans have of Roy Nelson, the great entertainer. 

By Alistair Hendrie